25 Creative Ways to Incorporate More Project Based Learning in the Classroom

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Education has come a long way from the days when teachers assigned students special projects like building volcanoes or producing formulaic reports at the end of the unit.

Now, the projects are the unit – addressing the standards, allowing for more student agency, and making the learning relevant and meaningful. Experts in the field call this, “Project Based Learning,” and advocates believe that students who experience PBL, as it is often called, are more engaged and better prepared for the real world as a result.

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The Buck Institute for Education is considered one of the most trusted resources for those who wish to incorporate PBL in their classrooms. For educators who aren’t certain about the attributes of Project Based Learning lessons that distinguish them from other PBL pedagogical terms (such as Problem Based Learning or Passion Based Learning), Buck Institute suggests that all quality Project Based Learning lessons include the following essential elements:

Project based learning - intro

If you are a teacher who is new to Project Based Learning, the above criteria may seem daunting, but the Buck Institute and many other leading educators in the field provide resources for developing quality PBL lessons. At Fusion, we’ve curated a list of some of these valuable tools, and would like to offer you 25 creative ways to bring Project Based Learning into your own classroom.

All good educators know that lesson planning should always begin with the end in mind. We ask ourselves, “What do you want the students to know by the end of this project?” In most classrooms, certain academic standards are required, but we also need to consider the “life skills” that we know students need, such as being able to collaborate, problem-solve, and make thoughtful choices. To begin, you must:

01. Set goals at the beginning of a project,

Project based learning - smart goals

02. And make them visible with a reasonable timetable for completion.

Project based learning - class goals

Once there are clear project expectations, “driving questions” must be developed. These can be created by the teacher or as a collaboration between the teacher and the class. In order to make these driving questions meaningful, one must, as Michael Gorman explains:

03. If students are helping to design the project, teach them the difference between a typical learning goal and a driving question.

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04. Use the Buck Institute’s “Tubric” to generate potential driving questions.

You can download the Tubric here and I would recommend you watch Andrew Miller’s demonstration.

Great PBL lessons make the learning relevant to the student, which can be done by demonstrating a relationship to current events and/or connecting student interests to the project. Here are some ways to make Project Based Learning meaningful for your class:

05. Make real-world connections by consulting local newspapers or websites.

Newsela is a great website offering current news summaries for a young audience.

06. Identify student interests using surveys such as this template on Google Forms.

Click on the image below to access the template.

Project based learning - google form

07. Choose projects that will guarantee student enthusiasm.

Sometimes students aren’t able to verbally express their interests, but you may be able to identify them anyway. For example, David Hunter knew that the prevalence of zombies in popular culture would be a great hook to use for teaching geography to middle school students. Sarah Carter wrote in this article for Edutopia about her use of Disney movies in her AP World History class!

Project based learning - zombie based learning 2

08. Brainstorm ideas with a heartbreak map.

Some students have no problem expressing their interests. However, Project Based Learning can take these interests even further by helping students to discover actions they can take to support their passions. Angela Maiers, world-renowned speaker for the “You Matter” movement, suggests that one way to discover the issues valued by students is to make heartbreak maps like these.

Project based learning - heartbreak map

Activities like heartbreak maps can be a waste of time if the students haven’t practiced brainstorming in the past. This skill, which can be one of the most powerful ways to produce ideas and solutions, should be incorporated frequently during Project Based Learning. It is also vital that students have the opportunity to brainstorm collaboratively, as this can help to generate even more suggestions and to encourage students to see things in different ways.

09. Use chart and/or butcher paper and multi-colored Post-It notes to collaboratively brainstorm.

Project based learning - post-i notes

10. Go a step further using the Post-It Plus App.

The Post-It Plus App can add digital functionality to those charts, allowing you to capture them on a device, organize them, and share them with others.

Project based learning - post-it plus app

11. Try other digital tools that are helpful for collaborative brainstorming.

Check out Google Docs or Google Slides, or whiteboard sites and apps like Padlet and Answer Garden.

Project based learning - padlet

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While teaching a traditional skill might involve lessons over a couple of days or for a week, Project Based Learning generally takes place over longer time periods. Some PBL may be as short as few days, but many effective PBL lessons are multi-faceted or interdisciplinary, and can take weeks, months, or even an entire school year to complete. It is critically important to incorporate reflections and formative assessments frequently throughout a PBL lesson so that teachers and students can get a sense of the progress that has been made and the improvements that are needed.

12. Ask students to use these exit tickets each day after they’ve worked on their projects.

Their visible reflections will help them and you, as the teacher, to keep track of their progress and needs.

13. To track progress on individual projects, teach students to use digital organizational tools.

You can try Trello as described here by Bammy Award Nominee, Andi McNair.

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14. Establish clear expectations.

Collaborative documents in Google can be great for sharing the work, allowing a team of students to work on different parts at the same time. This gives the teacher and team members the ability to stay informed about the on-going work, and also makes it easy to give instant feedback and suggestions. Use this poster to remind students about the expectations when using collaborative documents.

15. Gather research and products throughout the project by creating portfolios.

Portfolios can be organized in binders or folders, or with digital tools like Google Drive or Seesaw, allowing students to easily access their work any time and reflect on their progress.

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Grant Wiggins, author of Understanding by Design and many other influential books in the area of education, says,

Critique and revision are vital in any quality lesson, especially when it comes to Project Based Learning. It’s important to remember that feedback can come from many different quarters, including the students, themselves.

16. Provide rubrics to give clear expectations for the project.

Students and teachers can use the rubrics throughout the project’s duration, not just at the end. Rubrics can be great for self-reflection periodically throughout the lesson. Sites such as Rubistar make it painless to create effective rubrics.

17. Give students tools for self and peer evaluations to be used throughout the project.

For a simple method to self-reflect or evaluate peers, teach students how to graciously critique by using such methods as “Star and a Wish.”

18. Conduct a gallery walk at or a little bit after the mid-point of the project.

Students can get a better picture of their own performance by seeing their products in the relation to the work of others. One excellent way to do this is to use the “Gallery Walk” as described here by John Larmer of the Buck Institute. You can set expectations for the feedback to be given before a gallery walk by using rules such as these:

19. Teach students the value of a “Growth Mindset.”

Learning how to receive and use feedback productively does not come intuitively to all of us. Once your students understand appropriate ways to give feedback, teachers should also model the effective ways this feedback can be received and acted upon. Your students may need to be introduced to the concept of a “growth mindset,” so that they will be able to accept their critiques as suggestions for improvement instead of failures. (Primary students may enjoy the Class Dojo series of short videos about Growth Mindset.)

Project based learning - class dojo

According the Buck Institute’s Project Based Learning criteria, experiences should always culminate with a public product that is shared with an audience outside the classroom. When students know that they will be doing this, they tend to work harder to create something with high quality and substance – understanding that their audience may not possess all of the information the students collected during the project.

Consulting experts in the field can be one way to impress upon students the importance of their work. As noted innovation expert Don Wettrick explains in this Edutopia article by Suzie Boss, “They don’t need to hear, ‘Good job!’ They’re better off when an expert tells them, ‘That’s not bad, but have you considered this, or you might want to look at that.’ Oh, boy,” he adds. “When a student gets that kind of response from an expert in a field, that’s authentic.”

In other words, try to avoid the standard conclusion to a project with students standing in front of a class presenting a slideshow about their learning to their peers. Here are some better ways for your students to “make a splash.”

20. Conduct “Shark Tank” presentations at the end of the project.

Some teachers have chosen to conduct a competition similar to NBC’s Shark Tank, where entrepreneurs try to sell their startup ideas to a panel of millionaire business executives. In the education version, students invent a solution to a problem and must “pitch” it to a panel of adults, which can include local experts and “celebrities” like the mayor or owners of well-known local businesses related to their topic.

Project based learning -shark tank

21. Plan an event, whether it is school-wide or even open to the community, where the students display and explain their end-products.

Like this one.

The event can be a school museum, interactive games like ones you see at the Global Cardboard Challenge, or even a screening of student videos at a local cinema. Use digital tools like Canva to design posters, flyers, and social media banners to advertise the event!

22. Give students lots of choices for ways to “Show What They Know.”

In my blog post, “Step Away from the Slide Show,” I offer new ideas that allow students to present the topic that interests them in a way that interests them! Passionate presenters are usually much more engaging than those who feel bored by their own product. If your students want to go a bit more “high tech,” Tony Vincent offers some digital product suggestions here:

23. Find contests into which students can enter their final products.

Check out these two popular examples:
– “The Star Trek Replicator Challenge” from NASA
– The “Kids Philosophy Slam

Project based learning - student contests

(made with Canva)

24. Allow the students to use Minecraft or other self-designed games to share their ideas with the world.

To access Minecraft, click here.

Project based learning - minecraft

25. And, finally, be sure to document the entire experience so you can include it in your yearbook!

A yearbook project is perfect to involve your students, and showcase their talents. It’s also a great way to sum up what they’ve learned during the year. Some of the skills they’ll develop: research, analysis, writing, photography, design, time management, sales & marketing and anything you can think of depending on their age.

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Two high school students working on the budget (image source).

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Students celebrating their success after receiving printed copies of the yearbook they created together (image source)

Project Based Learning isn’t about assigning students to create the island from The Lord of the Flies out of candy after they read the book. (Yes, I knew a high school student who received that assignment!) Instead, students work on a project as they learn required standards. Good PBL lessons should always include the following:

  • Attainable goals with driving questions
  • Relevance for the students
  • Regular feedback and formative assessments
  • Student choice throughout the project
  • Final products that are shared outside of the classroom

By remaining faithful to the criteria above and using these 25 suggestions for creatively incorporating Project Based Learning in your classroom, you will find that your lessons are more meaningful and engaging for you and your students.

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Terri Eichholz teaches gifted students in Kinder through 5th grades in San Antonio, TX. She's been an educator for 24 years, and is a proponent of guiding students to create, problem-solve, and personalize their own learning. You can read more on her blog, "Engage Their Minds," or follow her on Twitter (@terrieichholz).

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